I’m not sure if you’ve seen this movie. I wouldn’t say that its for everyone. If you have no interest in hip-hop music, for example, then this probably isn’t for you.
Basically, its a story of a pimp with dreams of being more than he is. His dreams got derailed at some point in his life, and its eating him up in side that this is all he’s come to – a small-time Memphis pimp living on the edge of complete poverty. He has something of a midlife crisis as he realizes that he’s lived longer than his own father who died young of heart disease, and he has nothing of real value to show for it.
He ends up convincing someone he knows from high school to join him in producing a rap demo tape. Over the course of the film, the creative work, the creation of art (you might not think hip-hop is art, but the characters in the film do), brings hope and joy to the people involved even in the midst of a terrible situation. It doesn’t turn them into saints, but you can really see the slow work that self-expression does, the restorative effect of the chance to make your voice heard.
Once the demo tape is done, it all comes down to one last hustle – the main character needs to hustle Skinny Black, a rapper from his neighborhood played by Ludacris, in order to break out with his music. I’ll stop there because I don’t want to give away too much in case you do see the movie.
I like the movie because I feel like it presents the creative process in all of its pain and setbacks and small triumphs that no one ever sees. I also like it because it presents believable characters – very flawed people that nonetheless find ways to demonstrate love amidst the wrong things they do.
In reflecting on it, it is also an illustration of a principle of ethics as laid out by Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue, a pivotal text in the field of virtue ethics. He talks about practices, and I won’t define them here, but suffice to say that music qualifies as a practice. Part of what makes a practice what is is that when a person engages in a practice, they experience goods internal to the practice. External goods would be things like money or adulation or social status. Goods internal to the practice are those goods which the practice as such provides. The argument is that something like learning and performing music has intrinsic value apart from how you are rewarded for it externally. It is through practices that we learn what virtues are and develop them within ourselves. (Its a lot more complicated than that, but that’s enough for now.)
Hustle and Flow reflects this principle in that, through the practice of producing music, everyone involved becomes a better person (maybe incrementally, but still…). This happens before they are rewarded externally for anything they’ve done. By engaging in a practice, they find that they develop virtue – unintentionally. It even causes conflict, when this sense of virtue and experience of goods changes one character’s perspective on her own life – and since she’s one of the prostitutes working for the main character, you can see how this would be a problem.
I think it would be funny to use Hustle and Flow as an example in my Virtue Ethics seminar – a room-full of doctoral students in ethics at the Jesuit school in Berkeley.